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appeal to duty offer the slightest explanation of the his-
torical fact that Humility only became a recognized
virtue in consequence of the work of Christ in the world.

It remains then, for those who feel bound to rate duti-
fulness far higher than the belief in any doctrine, to weigh
well the following consideration : that independently
of the overwhelming obligation to embrace and ever hold
fast anything which claims successfully to be a revela-
tion from God to man — that is to say, purports to be
such for reasons which they cannot overthrow — they ought
to give their minds to the connexion between that Reve-
lation and human character.

The reason why many educated people practically
ignore Christian doctrine is that they have persuaded
themselves that character is everything and doctrine
therefore insignificant. But suppose it is shown that the


very foundation of all that is most essential, most win-
ning, most fruitful in character, is the outcome of a deeply-
rooted belief in the Divine Revelation, the situation
in which they are placed is no longer the same. It is
open to them as rational beings to adopt one of two
courses : either to yearn towards the acceptance of the
Revelation in its central teaching of the Love of God,
to ask for the gift of the Spirit in Whom it is understood,
and so to order their lives that by doing of God's will
they may know of the doctrine ; or else resolutely to bar
all reflection on the principle of the matter and to rever-
ence beauty of character without attempting to under-
stand its basis, merely because its manifestations are
passing lovely and pleasant. This last position would
allow them to be in a vague unthinking fashion " sup-
porters of religion " ; but if they are in any sense of the
word Theists, how unspeakably such a way of dealing
with the problem flouts all reason ! To say nothing of
their own inner life and its great need for every possible
safeguard against countless forms of egoism ; leaving
on one side also the certain fact that even if such a view
of life may satisfy individuals, it cannot be passed on to
others, it is plainly incumbent on them to recognize
what is involved as to their own response to the summons
of the Most High.

For there is abundant reason to think that that sum-
mons has come from God attested in sublime but most
appealing fashion in the evidences of His handiwork.
Just as the ever-varying glories of the sunset, or of the
sea tossing or slumbering beneath the radiance of the
sky, are signs of His Will to adapt the pageant of natural
processes to the delicate but limited sense-perceptions
of mankind, so He has ordered that the Revelation He


has made of His Love for us should be commended to
our minds by its wondrous outgrowth in human charac-
ter. That some men should be paragons of wisdom,
great examples of fortitude, ministers of good things to
their fellows, dauntless seekers after truth, was not un-
known before the days when Christ lived and suffered
in Palestine. But, after that time, what was novel and
unique in the world was the proof that men could think,
not little of the gifts, but nothing of themselves, the
recipients : should be so rapt and uplifted with the new
spiritual consciousness of Christ's Presence among them
according to His word, and of all that they owed to His
divine indwelling, that they forgot their own personality
with its rich and glorious powers, till their fellow-men
felt for the first time the spell of self-forgetfulness and
the winning influence of the humble single heart, mani-
fested in daily life before them. It was not for nothing
that Polycarp and Blandina braved tortures and death
rather than deny their Lord ; but when one thinks of
the tone of the populace in such places as Corinth,
Ephesus and Rome, is there not reason to suppose that
the testimony of the great unrenowned throng who
showed the world what Humility really meant, was an
even more potent witness to Him Who came " not in His
own Name," " not to be ministered unto but to minister "
and was among them " as He that doth serve " ?

So it is still. Humility of character, which began with
Christianity, has continued as the outcome of a sincere
faith in the work of Christ, the Redeemer and Sanctifier
of mankind. It may not be the most prevalent or the
most striking of the evidences of Christianity, but it is
the most attractive. To those who in all sincerity set
the development of character before themselves as an


aim incomparably more important than growth in a
right religious faith, it comes with a certain reminder
and a certain message too heavenly in tone to be lightly
set aside. Those who assume — and they are many —
that love of our brethren is all that is needed for our
earthly pilgrimage, forget that wherever love of others
is cold and feeble it is because egoism chills, mars and
interrupts it ; and the opposite of egoism is that Humility
which, beginning in a sense of sin, tends in its early stages
mainly towards self-depreciation, but gradually passes
into the far higher quality of self-forgetfulness, as the
consciousness of divine fellowship and infinite mercy
waxes in the soul. Then the gift of the love of others
finds the way open to the human heart, as the one grand
hindrance to its entering is being removed. So the
two qualities coalesce and are deeply interfused, and it
is only ignorance that makes us dream of growing in the
one without the other.

Hence it may be noticed that to Humility, understood
as self-forgetfulness which yet allows of the highest and
most vital activities, belongs the property of immortality.
As in regard to love, heaven is inconceivable without it.
Prophecy and faith and hope we can feel will fade away ;
but love, and with love its inseparable constituent, Humi-
lity, will abide. It is like that which Spenser sang in
his praise of human beauty —

But that fair lamp from whose celestial ray
The light proceeds which kindleth lovers' fire,
Shall never be extinguished or decay.
But when the vital spirits do expire
Unto her native planet shall retire :
For it is heavenly born and cannot die
Being a parcel of the purest sky.

There is much that is most unexpected about all human


virtue. Whenever it is manifested it seems that so
much has been endured for so very slight or uncertain a
gain to the man himself. Especially is this true of the
virtues which have developed under the influence of
Christianity. In earlier days, and among primitive
peoples the statement is less clearly true. The old
Roman conception of Virtus, the manly type of bravery,
chiefly physical, formed a necessary ingredient in the
character which tended to hold communities together
in presence of assaults from without. The aarwofioi
dpyai 1 of Sophocles were likewise appreciated in Greece,
and a large measure of neighbourliness was clearly
recognized, if not consistently practised, in Palestine in
the times of the Kings. Virtues of this sort secured an
end which a common mind could understand, the stability
of the fatherland. But after the religion of Christ had
had time to leaven the thoughts of divers nations it is
no longer so. Within a certain circle of people, virtuous
achievement of the highest kind as shown in anticipation
of Christianity by a Jeremiah, or a Socrates, assumes a
new character. The demand on the individual becomes
more searching and severe, and the benefits secured be-
come less and less tangible, less easily defined, more
outside the horizon of the " plain man " ; and yet when
each instance comes to be reviewed, it is inevitably recog-
nized as something precious to humanity, savouring
not of the things of men but of the things of God ; and
it appears that this account of virtue is true in proportion
as the result of virtuous action is not gainful in the ordi-
nary sense of the word.

Thus there is a mystery of goodness which is being

1 " The moods which mould a state." Jebb's translation of
Soph. Ant.



constantly reasserted, renewed in manifold types as the
years pass. It is true of much of what we think of as
lovingkindness ; true also of such devotion to duty as
that portrayed in Browning's " Grammarian's Funeral " ;
true again of the missionary zeal commemorated in a
thousand records of Christian endeavour. But it is
most undeniably true of that which is not so much an
achievement as a savour of action, viz. the self-forget-
fulness in thought, word and deed preached and practised
by Jesus Christ on such a scale, and with such an infinite
attractiveness and unsearchable power, that the recog-
nition of its beauty has been perpetuated in an increasing
degree ever since among the foremost nations of the
earth. Something has happened which has stolen the
strength of the, apparently, mightiest influence ruling
individual human lives, namely, egoism. The suppres-
sion, or ignoring, of self is the trait of the highest character
which most requires explanation. Self is insistent,
clamorous in its demands, imperious ; but more than
that, it is supremely interesting, and the interest of it,
the more it is annihilated in the individual owner of the
Self, prevails the more among onlookers and friends.
Often, during at least one stage in its growth, it has taken
the form of self-depreciation. But that is not of its
essence, or rather is not one of the characteristics of it
which wins the human heart. True unselfishness is the
mark of something far nobler and truer than the deprecia-
tion of that which, after all, is the work of Almighty God.
The question of the genesis of this peculiar quality
has been the theme of the preceding pages. The facts
which stand out as requiring explanation are as follows :
The group of qualities which we include ordinarily in
the word Humility, and of which the highest is the forget-


fulness of self such as has been considered, have been to
some extent and in a certain fashion described and actu-
ally practised by the Jewish singers and prophets. Among
the Greeks prior to Christianity there is no teaching of
these virtues powerful and spontaneous enough to lift
men's ethical ideal ; perhaps only in Plato's writings
there are a few passages which may be said to touch on
truths so high that, if meditated on, they would encourage
the virtue of Humility. This is because the writer now
and then partakes of the Jewish prophetical spirit, so
that Augustine was inclined to the belief that he was
acquainted with the Hebrew Bible. 1 In short, Plato
shows that just where he is able to present some of the
truth of God's attributes of Wisdom and Power he utters
things which give men a certain effective stimulus of a
spiritual kind. It is a stimulus towards contemplating
the highest conceivable form of Being in which the
mystery of human endowment receives its fulfilment
and every lofty aspiration which falls within the circle
of the qualities of Wisdom and Power its explanation.
But even Plato understood very little about Agape —
the love which transcends passion — and herein lies the
simplest answer, from the human side, to the question
why this noble Greek teacher failed to develop among
his followers that group of virtuous qualities which
appeared with some suddenness and were generally recog-
nized after the foundation of the Christian Church.

But this last statement is still open to an apparent
objection. It may be urged that in the Jewish Scriptures
we have indications of humility, self-abnegation, self-
abasement, and so forth, quite as complete as those given
by the New Testament ; or (if that estimate be chal-
* Cf. Illingworth's Divine Transcendence, p. 166.


lenged) complete enough to dispute the claim made for
Christianity as the creator of this virtue or, at any rate,
of man's recogrr'tion of it. The story of Abraham obeying
the call, as he conceived it, to sacrifice his only son ;
the abasement of David after his great sin ; the wonder-
ful utterance of the patriarch Job after the revelation of
God's power had been vouchsafed to him ; these and
many other instances will occur to the reader. There
should be added to them the recurring instances of the
recognition that self-assertion against God was the cause
of downfall : Aaron, Pharaoh, Saul, and many of the
kings. Then we have to include the matchless sayings
in the Psalms, breathing the very purest spirit of humility,
resignation, trust in God; in short, all theGodward temper
which comprises all the group of virtues under discussion.
Lastly there are many sublime passages in the Prophets
instinct with the same tone : the teaching of the supre-
macy of God over the mightiest of the world-powers
such as Sennacherib ; 1 the divine control of such a ruler
as Cyrus 2 and the fate of proud nations that have fancied
themselves secure in their haughtiness and the greatness
of their dominion ; such as Assyria, Babylon and Tyre.
In tones of triumphant conviction and unsurpassed
beauty of eloquence, and with a breadth of view ranging
over all the known record of human history, these ancient
seers proclaimed, in its manifold aspects, the majesty o{
the Most High and the littleness of man " whose breath
is in his nostrils." In powerful corroboration of these
utterances we have the record of human submission to
the divine will in the story of Jeremiah, to say nothing
of the many martyrdoms reviewed in the- well-known
chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. 3 In what sense

1 2 Kings xix. 2 Is. xliv., xlv. 3 Heb. xi.


can it be truly said that Humility, or the recognition
of it, was due to Christianity alone ?

The first answer to be given to this question would be
as follows : — Just as the lofty teaching of Plato issued
in Aristotle's portrait of his ideal man from which the
plainest symptoms of humility are wanting, so the sublime
insistence of the Old Testament writers on man's duty
of submission to God failed to prevent the development
of Pharisaism — that singular growth from which were
absent not so much the plainest symptoms of humility
as its inward essence and all that we mean by its spirit ;
and if, as has been said, it is inconceivable that Julius
Caesar or Alexander the Great could have uttered the
great passage in the Epistle to the Philippians * it is
hardly more conceivable that a true Pharisee could have
understood it.

In other words, the characteristic of ineffectuality which
belongs to Plato's message, and which is so baffling and
so distressing to any lover of humanity, is found also
to belong to the doctrines of Priest, Psalmist and Prophet
of the Hebrews. Not, of course, to the same degree.
The teaching of the Old Covenant was far clearer, more
piercing, vastly more positive than that of the Greek
sage ; but, more than that, it was far more powerfully
corroborated by lives that were lived and deaths that
were died. The greatest and most moving portrait of
Humility that is to be found in all pre-Christian records
is that of the Servant in the second Isaiah ; 2 and it has
been with much probability suggested that it was inspired
by the martyr-heroism of Jeremiah. Whereas in Greek
or Roman history, unless it be the death of Socrates, we

1 Phil. ii. 1-17. Cf. Miss Wordsworth's Onward Steps, p. 3.

2 Ch. liii.


have not a single picture of conduct which could be
described as self-forgetful surrender to a cause nobler
than that of martial patriotism ; and the time comes to
every nation when such patriotism lacks a field for its
exercise. If, then, the inadequacy of Hebrew teaching
was a fact, in spite of its being supported and invigorated
by the examples of many heroes, to what may we ascribe
the achievement of Christianity : its power to create a
new ideal which has affected the ordinary view taken
by average men and women in any Christian country,
as to what real beauty of character is ?

Now bearing in mind the strangeness of the phenomenon
that has to be explained — the general recognition of a
type of character which is opposed to deep and universal
human instincts — we are met at first sight by the difficulty
that the work of Christ resembles that of His forerunners
in its aim and spirit, but differs from them in that He
was one and they were many ; and yet that He achieved
a revolution in human ethics which they only succeeded
— as far as others were concerned — in indicating. As
far as conduct goes, there was something so sublime
about the story of Jeremiah that we should expect to
find a proportionate influence exercised on human ideals,
proportionate that is to the influence of Christ. But
there is no evidence to warrant any such inference. The
Jews gathered the bodies of the slain prophets into
sumptuous sepulchres, but the homage they paid to the
martyrs did not mean any deep acceptance of their spirit.
The noblest features of the Christian character were
either not exhibited by their votaries or, if they were,
they were not appreciated. But when the time came,
we find that Christ illuminated human life with a new
conception of goodness. His immediate forerunner, the


Baptist, was a shining and splendid instance of self-
forgetfulness and self-abnegation ; but yet we feel
that even if he had been able to exhibit that example
without the inspiration of the nearness of Jesus, it would
not have been taken into men's minds and bosoms any
more than that of Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Indeed, the
passage in which it is so finely portrayed for us 1 gives
the impression that it could not have been written except
by one who had learned from the Lord's lips and example,
under the Spirit's direction, what self-abnegation meant.
The contemporary attitude towards the Baptist — as
the Synoptists show, with their singular power of repro-
ducing an atmosphere of feeling which had passed away
— gave no more promise than did that of the contempor-
aries of Isaiah, of any final acceptance of his message.
This the later Evangelist notes with precision, " He was a
burning and a shining light : and ye were willing for a
season to rejoice in His light." 2 We are still, then,
seeking an answer to the question, What is the explanation
of the permanence of the introduction of genuine profound
humility into the group of virtues recognized among
mankind ?

As compared with the life of Socrates, or the teaching
of Plato, the story of Jesus Christ gains, of course, im-
mensely in the power of the sinless example and further
from the ineffably winning attraction of His personality.
But there is no reason to suppose that either the teaching,
or the example, or the personality, or all three together,
could have wrought the change in men's minds that was
actually wrought, had it not been for the interpretation
of His Person which established itself soon after His
death and has been maintained in His Church from that
1 John Hi. 24 sqq. 2 John v. 35.


day. Further, I would urge that the power of main-
taining this interpretation vividly and genuinely, and,
still more, the power to see what it involves, is the
direct outcome of the gift of Pentecost and cannot be
otherwise explained.

To amplify at any length these statements, after what
has been said, is needless. We have Christ's warrant
for considering the nature of a child, the characteristic
of childhood which is most typical and most lovely, as a
guide to the solution of questions such as these. He
told us that childlikeness is the note of those who enter
the Kingdom of heaven. He left us to put together
what we know of children, namely, that the development
and vigour of all that is most beautiful in them depends
on their knowledge of their parent's love and that,
during the precious years when a child is most truly a
child, there is a strong tendency to something like self-
surrender, which is added to the natural self-forgetfulness,
if only the manifestation of that love has been blended
with that of wisdom, strength, justice, godliness. In
proportion as these elements enter into home-life, we find
children showing the very qualities included in the term
Humility. If they are physically vigorous their activities
are symptoms of their upward striving towards the ideal
set before them. The utmost reward they look for is
a word of approval; while, if they are now and again
disobedient, the slightest token of the parents' love being
wounded brings them instantly to show the grief they
feel, without the least attempt at excusing the fault or
reluctance to put their feelings into words. In all this
they exhibit the opposite of the self-assertive wilfulness
which is incompatible with Humility ; and if we add
to it the self-forgetfulness which, besides being natural,


is the outcome of their constantly pressing towards some-
thing higher than themselves which is not themselves,
but which they instinctively feel they can appropriate
and win ; then we have the tone of character which in
its wondrous freshness and charm is almost entirely re-
stricted to childhood, but which, in its deeper elements,
is found among those who have passed through storm
and conflict, but have learnt that the revelation of the
Love of God can restore something of the long-forgotten

For humility is recognized not by children only, but
by grown men, who first lost " novitcts ea fiorea mundi "
owing to the insistence of the idea of a personal self as
childhood passed into adolescence. Thus it is not enough
to see what the revelation of earthly parental love will
do for the child whom nature equips at first with self-
forget fulness. We are brought face to face with a far
greater wonder : the development of this grace in selfish
adult life ; the overcoming of a pervading vice of char-
acter which has been allowed free play as the years went
by. How has this been brought about ?

The knowledge of the Love of God for man l has
worked the miracle. Not the recognition only of the
beauty of the character of the man Jesus ; because if
that were all, the story of the Gospel would only be
one more record of supreme goodness overborne by
supreme selfishness ; " one more triumph for devils,
one more insult to God " ; and indeed it would be the
greatest of all such triumphs, the most unanswerable
of all such insults. No, it is the sense of infinite Love
combined with infinite Power and Wisdom, called out

1 Tit. iii. 4.


by the knowledge that God Himself became Man, and
conquered Death by enduring it.

Finally, just as there was gross and invincible miscon-
ception of the work of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Baptist,
so there was of Christ and of His work and His teaching.
But it has not prevailed in the conflict. Something
happened which altered the relative power of the con-
tending forces. Instead of the weak-hearted group of
500 followers or thereabouts, the only apparent fruit
of our Lord's ministry, being the one hope of the new
religion, we find 3,000 gathered into the divinely-founded
Society in one day, and we gradually come to see that
the three years during which the Saviour lived and
worked among men, were, in one aspect at any rate, a
preparation for the Pentecostal gift. In relation to our
subject, this view of Christ's work is all-important. It
is as if the Almighty Father tried first one help, then
another, then a third, for His weak and bewildered chil-
dren. He endowed His chosen people with a genius
for religion and for recognizing the relation between
man and God. Further, He summoned into life the
piercing imagination of Xenophanes, Parmenides and
Plato. The latter failed because, whether men caught
the philosopher's drift or not, philosophy is powerless,
without living personal example, to lift the lives of man-
kind. The former failed, though the sublime teaching
was fortified by lives of wondrous self-surrender and
unquenchable trust. The message was too lofty and
human egoism too strong. When at last One came with
a message of still more august import, with a summons
to a self-surrender far more complete, and to a trust
which no earthly distress could undermine, though again
the heavenly words were illustrated by a triumph over


all the subtlest forces of the world of evil : pride, egoism,
love of ease, impatience at wilful blindness or chill in-
difference ; yet once more the Ambassador from the
unseen realms of life would have failed to bring His

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Online LibraryEdward LytteltonCharacter and religion → online text (page 15 of 19)